, Newburyport, MA


February 1, 2014

Shribman: The audacity of hopelessness


But Obama wants to stamp his era with the notion of opportunity. There were strains of that concept in Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the 50th anniversary of which will be marked this spring; that was what the War on Poverty and many of the other initiatives of the Johnson years were about. A subtheme of Ronald Reagan’s anti-government rhetoric was the conviction that an unfettered market would provide economic opportunity. Bill Clinton’s focus on the middle class was implicitly a paean to opportunity.

But the Johnson administration had a divisive war, a civil rights struggle and a youth rebellion to share its attention; the Reagan administration was consumed with national defense and tax overhaul struggles; and the Clinton years ended with a lengthy struggle over impeachment and a national debate about the difference between personal behavior and political performance. None of them focused on single parents, the working poor or women to the extent that Obama has -- and did again Tuesday night.

In his Tuesday speech and his Wednesday appearance here in Pittsburgh, the president’s focus was pre-eminently on creating opportunity -- or, more precisely, preserving opportunity. Where Dwight Eisenhower had to contend with a missile gap and Johnson with a credibility gap, Obama’s major preoccupation is the wage gap and its cousin, the opportunity gap.

Obama’s speech began with an upbeat reassessment of the recovery from the 2008 economic debacle, but the president believes -- and academic studies have confirmed -- that the recovery he has presided over has been at best uneven. Emmanuel Saez, the Berkeley economist who is perhaps the most prominent chronicler of the economic gap, points out that in the first two years of the recovery, the top 1 percent captured 95 percent of the income gains across the country.

The president vowed to “reverse these trends,” though he understated the difficulty of doing that.

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